Eight hours a day, five days a week for 72 weeks in the early 1990s, Mirko Hall was immersed in Arabic at the military's Defense Language Institute.
Now for three hours a week, in the relaxing confines of Converse College's Kuhn Hall, Hall is teaching the area's first college Arabic language course to 15 Converse students.
"I never thought I would be asked to teach Arabic, and I'm thrilled," Hall said. "It's been a part of my life since the Army, but it just hasn't been structured in the classroom."
Hired to teach German - he received undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees in German studies from the University of Minnesota - Hall also is getting a chance to use the Arabic he learned for the Army for the school's first Arabic class.
The school has a successful Model Arab League team, and a sizeable percentage of the 15 students in the class are associated with the team. While this introductory course is not the same as some of the intensive Arabic courses that are offered (like the Defense Language Institute), some of the Model Arab Leaguers said it was a good start as they await future trips to the Middle East.
Others are just in class because of a love of language, or because it sounds interesting, particularly in these times when the Middle East is constantly in the news.
"I know how other people have learned in intensive programs, they've learned a lot in a lot shorter amount of time," said senior Lucy Johnson of Hollendale, Miss., who competes for the Model Arab League team. "But I think Dr. Hall has done a great job of helping us grasp it given the amount of time we do have."
Hall said that the three-hour courses - a second will be taught during the spring semester - will hopefully mean that by the end of the year the students will have a foundation in the language, its pronunciation and its grammar.
The language can be difficult to learn for English speakers, particularly because of its unique alphabet, which has different letters and is written from right to left. But the language also is phonetic, meaning once the writing is grasped, the language can be understood with more ease.
"It's not that Arabic is really difficult," Hall said. "But the grammar is different than English for sure, and it's a new script, and has some new sounds (that are) so different than Spanish or French or Italian. So (language experts) reckon it takes four times as long to learn Arabic."
Hall, a Minneapolis native, learned the language at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, Calif. After more than a year there, he went to school to be an interrogator for nine weeks before being stationed in Germany. After that he went to Kuwait for about a year in the mid-1990s, where he helped the Kuwaiti government translate documents from Arabic to English, and vice versa.
Hall left the Army in 1997 and was not an interrogator during the current Iraq War. He said the Arabic he was taught was meant to augment and oversee the work of native speakers.
"You will most likely always have a native speaker as an interpreter in an interrogation," Hall said. "You know Arabic to make sure that person is doing their job, and also for quick interrogations on the battlefield."
Since leaving the Army, he has been focused on German - he teaches two German courses at Converse - but keeping up on his Arabic by reading Arabic news and watching Arabic news programs when possible.
Hall tries to spice up his class by showing some humorous, mainstream uses of Arabic. In class last Tuesday, he discussed Arabic discourses on such topics as the U.S. visit of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the media obsession with Paris Hilton.
"I like to bring a lot from popular culture into it," Hall said. "Everyone is bright, articulate and motivated, so it makes it a lot of fun."